...while Paul Gallotta discovers how bass got its top end from the Yes man
There are few bassists who can be as quickly and certainly identified as Chris Squire. His twangy, melodic playing is as personal as a signature and over the last 17 years it has defined the sound of Yes, the band he founded and is still propelling today.
But thanks to big changes in the personnel around Squire, the modern, studio-forged sound of today's Yes bears little resemblance to the heavily classical, complex structures of the early band.
The 1985 Yes consists of Squire, old hands Jon Anderson and Alan White on vocals and drums respectively, veteran keyboardsman Tony Kaye, who hadn't been in Yes since 1971 before rejoining last year, and South African guitarist and song writer Trevor Rabin. And the production duties are handled by the Messiah of the Mixer, Trevor Horn himself.
So how does the leader of this pedigree collective see the move from the early Pomp-Rock to the Pop-Rock of the last album, the numerically titled 90125?
"I think if you listen back to The Yes Album and Fragile you'll hear that the style of songs wasn't that different from 90125. The main difference, probably is that you can hear the improvement in the technology."
How responsible is Trevor Rabin for the new influence heard on the album?
"Very, because he's a very different type of songwriter with a bunch of styles. He changed certain elements of the band, but then, there are elements of the band that changed him as well. It's a good marriage, isn't it?"
Your function in Yes has generally been that of organiser, hasn't it?
"A bit of a personnel director, yeah."
In retrospect, what are your feelings on the previous Yes band, with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes in place of Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman? Wasn't it your idea to involve them?
"Yeah. I don't think anyone else in the band was particularly convinced it was a great idea at the time. I personally think it kind of worked. It was a very rushed time, I'll tell you, because we already had an American tour booked when Jon and Rick left. However, we came through it as best as possible, and I feel that Drama is a fairly successful album.
The surprising thing at the time was that with Anderson and Wakeman gone, it would have been the perfect opportunity to make the kind of changes in Yes's sound as you have on 90125. Yet Horn merely mimicked Anderson's vocal style.
"Yeah, it's funny. I think Trevor must have worked really hard at trying to sound like Jon. I remember being on stage in Dallas doing And You and I. Now, most of the time Jon was a much better singer than Trevor. But on this particular night he sang it so well, I couldn't believe it wasn't Jon. In fact, it was better than Jon. I think that tour was good for Trevor; it gave him a lot of confidence, because he'd been thrown in the deep end and managed to live through it — without too many scars. And now he's our producer."
Could you trace the course of events that led up to the reformation of Yes?
"Well, 1980 had been a very frazzled year. I wanted to rest a bit and then record another album, but others in the band weren't so convinced. And, frankly, I was a little pissed off at the attitude in the band at the time, because Trevor'd been through a lot, and yet the group was saying, 'He's not good enough.' I thought he was.
"So I took sometime off; after spending the '70s doing nothing but recording and touring, I didn't feel too guilty about it. Then, as you probably know, there was a rumour that expanded out of proportion —
"Right. Which basically stemmed from the fact that Jimmy Page had bought a studio not far from where we both lived. He wanted to hear what the place sounded like, so Alan White and myself came down, messed about and did a few tracks. That's all it was. No Robert Plant, no John Paul Jones, as was rumoured.
"In early 1982, Alan and I were trying to decide whether or not to carry on. By this time Asia were already formed, so we decided to experiment, and that's when Trevor Rabin came to my studio and jammed with us. All of us played really badly; it was the worst thing you ever heard! But we all knew it'd work anyway.
"Then I brought in Tony Kaye, because realising what a tricky guitarist Trevor was, I didn't want to fall into the same trap we'd been in around the Tormato era, where Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman were both trying to speedily run each other around the garden path. Tony's more of a textural keyboardist, and it's proved to be a good relationship. So the four of us did a lot of jamming and rehearsing, playing anything just to discover our approaches to making music — we even did a couple of AC/DC songs!
"Then Trevor Horn started dropping by the studio and eventually began to produce. Finally we had the whole album done apart from a few vocals that we were stuck on, and that's when we asked Jon if he'd like to come back as well."
Wasn't the band to be called Cinema?
"Yes, but when Jon started singing, I said, It sounds like Yes to me."
Steve Howe wasn't very happy about your using the Yes name...
"Well I think he was given a nice cheque..."
Did Seeing Asia's success make you anxious to return to music?
"No, I wasn't that impressed with their success; it seemed to me they had a big hit album because there was nothing else out at the time. I think when they went to do their second album, they didn't realise how lucky they'd been, and they obviously suffered for it."
Everything that Yes were attempting to do on their early albums — stretching song length, composing in movements, altering instrumental roles — was inherently non-commercial. Did you find it surprising that the band should become one of the major acts of the '70s?
"Yeah! I guess we created, or were just a part of that sort of album-oriented generation, leaning away from three-minute singles. That it did wind up very successful is ironic."
Yes were always considered a musicians' band. What are your feelings about some of the new groups who emphasize ideas over execution, and some would say, fashion over music?
"Personally, I like a lot of the new bands, particularly the Thompson Twins. The first time I saw them, I was very impressed. But the second time, it was like they couldn't grow, and that's a problem for many of these groups."
Do you foresee a resurgence of audience interest in virtuosity — going to see someone who possesses true instrumental ability?
"Yes, I think that is returning. Because so many of these new bands are a bit... short-term and seem to die quickly, a lot of people are coming back to wanting to see people play."
Speaking of playing, when did you start?
"Fairly late, at 15. The only think I'd ever done musically was sing in a church choir."
Is that where you got your appreciation for grand melodies?
"Yeah, I'm convinced that's where it comes from, and bits of that have crept into some of my compositions."
What led you to adopt your distinctive, trebly tone?
"Seeing John Entwistle. I was that 15-year-old who regularly went to the Marquee Club in London to see the Who. I was taken by their aggression plus the musicality, which was definitely there.
"I immediately liked that piano - like tone, which is something I've stuck with ever since. A lot of it is thanks to James How and Rotosound Strings. I use the Swing Bass string."
Did you consciously go after that sound, or was it the result of trial and error?
"I knew what I was trying to achieve, I just didn't always achieve it. Our producer, Eddy Offord, really helped me to develop that sound. It's funny, but on some earlier recording projects that I did, I was trying to get that sound across but the engineer didn't understand. So you ended up with me trying to go for that, and him trying to roll it off."
For years Squire was identified with the Rickenbacker 4001 bass, but on Yes's most recent tour he brought along four additional instruments, including a 1965 Gibson Thunderbird. All his basses go through his trusty 100-watt Marshall amp — which contains four 12", 25-watt Celestion speakers and is miked with an Electro-Voice RE20 through the PA — and on the other side of the stage, a 400-watts-per-side SAE power amp and two custom-built 6-12" cabinets housing four JBL and two Gauss speakers.
Additional equipment consists of integrated Moog Taurus and Dewtron bass pedals, and a unique, fully automated 48-preset-capability effects pedalboard designed by former Yes roadie Steve Dove. According to Richard Davis, Squire's roadie since 1978, it's programmed with eight combinations of the following effects: Eventide harmonizer, custom-made tremolo ("made in 1967 by a couple of guys I used to go to school with — it's the quietest piece of equipment I've ever had"), Brassmaster fuzz, MXR reverb and delay units, and Mutron wah-wah pedal.
But back to the famous Rickenbacker — why does it sound so distinctive?
"I know what you're getting at, because so many people went out and bought the same bass and spent ages trying different amps and still wondering why they couldn't get theirs to sound like mine. The main reason is, being a 17 year-old in the psychedelic period, I had stuck wallpaper on the bass; I'd painted it silver. I'd decorate it, then get bored and have it shaved down. And this happened two or three times. So my bass was actually much lighter than the regular Rickenbacker."
Is it still your main bass?
"Yeah, although I have about 35 in all, some of which are antiques not primarily meant for playing. I'm travelling with five."
How do you set your controls?
"It depends. On the Rickenbacker, the treble pickup is flat out and the bass pickup is usually close to flat out. The tone controls are set at about three quarters."
Didn't you at one time use a Sunn Guitar amp?
"Yeah, briefly, when I was experimenting with solid-state amps. But then I decided I liked tube amps better and went back to my Marshall — it's one of the old purple ones, and I've always recorded with it."
Do you generally record using an amp or do you go directly into the mixing desk?
"Both, but I never like to DI the guitar straight from the instrument because then the signal gets split and you get a less satisfying sound on the bass through the amp."
You've basically played with only two drummers in your recording career, Bill Bruford and Alan White. How did their contrasting styles affect your playing?
"It was very different; Bill and I had established a very good rapport, and with Alan it took a couple of albums to really identify with each other and to learn to play together."
Ever hear a drummer you'd really like to play with?
"I think Stewart Copeland is a fantastic drummer. In a way, Bill was sort of the forerunner to him — playing near the rim of the snare, the Reggae-ish feel. Stewart just took it further."
What are some of the songs from the band's history that best define Yes?
"There's a series of them: Yours Is No Disgrace is one; Heart of the Sunrise, which was a very successful attempt at writing using movements; and our version of Simon and Garfunkel's America — I think that one made people aware of what Yes were trying to do.
Now that Jon is officially in the band, do you see the next album as having more of a band identity? Will it feel more like a unit?
"Sure. Just knowing who's in the group from the start will help shape the music more. I think it'll be better, probably."
Certainly there were many who thought that Yes's success would be confined to the '70s, that you couldn't make the transition to the '80s.
"Absolutely — there were a few people!"
You must feel pretty vindicated after the success of 90125.
"Well, I like a challenge, and that's why when we started this, it was important to re-evaluate the energy levels. I suppose that my goal is to always try to turn things around, and after the drop in the creative level in the late '70s — which was inevitable — it's nice to achieve it."
Interview by Paul Gallotta